The Danger of Being a Philly Pedestrian

Voter ID law affects more than the city's poor.

One of Philadelphia’s strongest assets has always been its walkability. Unlike some cities where it’s absolutely essential to own a car, plenty of people live in Philadelphia without driving. Whatever SEPTA’s failings (which are often overblown), it functions well enough to get car-less people—those saving money on gas, maintenance, insurance—where they need to go. I speak from vast experience, which still haunts my dreams.

According to a study cited by PlanPhilly, in 2006 Philadelphia had one of the lowest car ownership rates in the country. That’s probably been consistent for a very long time. When I was growing up, I never understood all those pop-culture references—in movies, on commercials—about kids dying to borrow their parents’ car. I knew my parents had a car but it never occurred to me to drive it. Why would I? My friends and I walked everywhere. (Only two kids in my class got cars. One of them took me on a date in his new ’Vette, and I promptly spilled my Coke-flavored Slurpee all over the interior—he was not happy. We’re Facebook friends now, though.)

I went to college without a driver’s license, and made a lot of friends from New York—they didn’t have licenses either. I finally got one when I was 22 and moved to Texas but a lot of friends from Philly and New York never bothered. When I moved back to Philly from Texas, I let my license expire. I didn’t need it. Not to drive—and certainly not to vote.

Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, which about 100 statewide, regional and local organizations are trying to delay, requires that registered voters bring photo ID to the polls—not a problem for people who drive and can just pull out a license. But 18 percent of the city’s registered voters don’t have driver’s licenses or even the non-driver’s PennDOT-issued photo ID. That’s one in five voters—people who are already registered to vote, mind you; who care enough to do so, who want to be part of the process—who are ineligible under the new law.

While numerous discussions of the law revolve around its partisan agenda—the legislation seems a fairly transparent GOP gambit to keep traditionally Democratic constituencies, like the urban poor, from voting—it’s worth broadening the conversation as well. If we keep putting the issue in terms of earning rights for the “urban poor,” I worry it’ll allow some people—rich people, in particular—to tune the bad news out. I don’t suggest anyone has bad intentions; it’s just that a phrase like “urban poor” is easy to ignore if you’re numerous economic generations away. So I’d like to issue a reminder that there are plenty of middle-class or lower-upper-class or just—forget the categories—there are lots of people of all types who won’t be able to vote.

If this law had been in place when I turned 18, I guess I wouldn’t have been able to vote, which I remember as more of an exciting “first time” than losing my virginity. Following from that, I guess I wouldn’t have become the person I am now: one of those freakishly devout voters who goes to the polls on days when just tumbleweeds blow through, as though if I’d meet God anywhere, it’d be in a voting booth. I have evangelized the Word of the Vote inappropriately at workplaces and to wilting, desperate friends exhausted by my harangue. I have taken intellectually disadvantaged adults to vote for the first time, and seen the thrill it gave them to know that their opinion mattered. I’ve had dinner arguments with my grandmother and her friends over politics—a group of women who, if they were still alive in Pennsylvania—wouldn’t be welcome at the polls for the first time in their lives. And what about my intellectual frequent-flyer voting friend who’s just a Philly guy with a bike who never got a car and so never got a license? He used to vote. Guess he won’t anymore.

I’m fortunate that I did eventually get a driver’s license again, albeit after failing the permit test several times and then having to retake the driving test in my late 20s. It was humiliating, but it’s the only way I can have a PennDOT photo ID; I no longer have the key document I’d need to get a non-driver’s photo ID: my original birth certificate. At any rate, even if I fully embrace Philly’s walkability, SEPTA and the sustainable world of a non-driver, I’ll tell you this: I’m never letting that license go. I intend to participate in our political process, whether I’m wanted or not.